Photo Credit: Chris Kennedy
Captain Bob Turner, a retired America West pilot and check airman, spent decades mastering the complexities, computations and checklist nuances associated with flying Boeing 737s and Airbus A320 jetliners. All the time he was an airline pilot, he also continued to hone his skills as a master stick-and-rudder aviator in his 1946 Piper J3 Cub, shown above, that he's owned for more than four decades. Captain Turner is equally adept at flying most other tailwheel aircraft and he frequently entertains onlookers at San Diego - Montgomery Field with his demonstrations of piloting prowess in the traffic pattern.
Some years ago, Turner, a CFI, checked me out in his J3 Cub, the one shown above, and endorsed my logbook for proficiency in tailwheel aircraft. I was honored to have that opportunity and I'm a better pilot for the experience.
This past Holiday weekend, I was delighted when he invited Lynda Sands (my SO) and me to fly his vintage J3 and another one, shown below, that he partially owns with a mutual friend. This was a particular treat with prevailing temps in the high 60s / low 70s, allowing us to fly with the doors open.
Photo Credit: Chris Kennedy
"Contact!" A quick hand spin of the prop brought the 65-hp engine to life on each aircraft. Not longer after, we began to "fly" the pair of J3s to the run-up area. I use the term "fly" because taxiing tailwheel aircraft is considerly more challenging than ground maneuvering modern tricycle landing gear airplanes. That's especially true because J3 aircraft are flown solo from the backseat making it impossible to see over the nose of the aircraft. You spend a lot of time S-turning down the taxiways so that you can look out the side of the aircraft to see what's in front of you.
Tailwheel steering is imprecise at best, so it's often necessary to use full deflection of the rudder pedals, plus some differential braking, along with full up elevator and anti-crosswind aileron inputs, to steer the aircraft and prevent breezes from upsetting its composure.
Lynda and Bob taxied out on the left side of Runway 28R in one Cub and I took up right side echelon position in the other Cub for a formation takeoff. We powered up and trundled down the pavement at nearly jackrabbit speed. At 20 mph, the tailwheels lifted off and we were airborne at 40 mph. I closed up into tight right echelon and we climb as a two-ship into the right, northside traffic pattern, accelerating to more than 60 mph!
I crossed under to left echelon so that Bob and Lynda could peel off for a right rurn to base and final. I slowed to 40 and delayed my turn to base for 30 seconds to give Bob and Lynda room for the option of making a touch-and-go or a stop-and-go.
On final, I noticed there was a slight right crosswind that required a healthy crab to maintain the desired track along runway centerline. Nearing the runway, I transitioned to a wing-down / top-rudder slip to align the nose with the runway centerline. In light tail wheel aircraft, I prefer three-point touchdowns. But you frequently end up touching down on the upwind main gear and tail wheel, if there's a crosswind.
Kerplunk, bounce, kerplunk. That was ugly. Too fast on touchdown. It was glaringly apparent to airport spectators that Bob Turner was not flying this aircraft. I'm sure my friends in the tower giggled and pointed. I imagined they muttered, "You hamburger, George."
Okay, okay. I was rusty. I needed a lot better airspeed control, as well as more stick-and-rudder practice.
With a few more circuits my landings got more respectable. I started consistently touching down on the numbers of 28R with much gentler kerplunks and much shorter roll outs. Airspeed control and stick-and-rudder discipline were improving. I was starting to "wear the airplane". Eventually, I became more comfortable.
At the end of the day, we tail-wagged our ways back to the hangars and put the two aircraft away for the day. Both Lynda and I were grinning like a couple of kids in an amusement park. We had worked hard, confronted the challenges of flying tailwheel aircraft and came away with the satisfaction that we were better pilots for the experince.
Thank you Captain Bob for the tailwheel refresher. The airspeed discipline and stick-and-rudder skills we practiced are just as vital for me when flying modern jets as they are when piloting vintage airplanes.
It's difficult for some jet pilots to recognize the value of frequent tailwheel aircraft practice. But, for me it's CAVU clear why those skills are essential.